Le Lucernaire is a “national center for the arts and experimentation” in the 6th arrondissement of Paris, between Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Montparnasse. It includes three theaters, three cinemas, a bookshop, a restaurant, a bar and an art gallery.
I first heard of the Lucernaire when I attended a play at the Théâtre Liberté in Toulon and learned that the same play had earlier been performed repeatedly at the Lucernaire in Paris.
In July 2014 I found a hotel that was just a block away from the Lucernaire (as an American I still tend to think in blocks, even though that makes no sense in a city like Paris), so after checking in to the hotel I walked over to the Lucernaire to see what they had on offer.
Fortunately the Lucernaire performs all year round, even in the summer. They have three theaters and each one can accommodate two or three shows each evening, so they had several plays on the playbill.
I hadn’t heard of any of these plays, so I just chose one that had a funny name: Les amnésiques n’ont rien vécu d’inoubliable (The amnesiacs haven’t experienced anything unforgettable). I bought a ticket for that one, to be performed at eight o’clock the same evening. With my senior discount, the ticket cost me 20 Euros instead of 30.
In their bookshop, I noticed that they had a book of the same title, so I bought it and read about a third of it before the play started. This was a good idea, because I wouldn’t have understood some of the more subtle parts if I hadn’t read them beforehand.
In the book, a woman asks the same question over and over again, a thousand times, and the man she is involved with gives a thousand different answers, some silly, some profound, some provocative, some conciliatory. The question is one that can be asked in all sorts of different ways and with different intentions:
À quoi tu pense?
(What are you thinking?)
Of the thousand answers in the book, they chose one hundred and fifty for the play, which lasts about an hour.
When the audience comes into the theatre (the “Red Theatre” with 118 seats), the actor Etienne Coquereau is alone — apparently — in the bathtub, where he is covered with foam and reading a paperback book. Soon a woman’s voice starts asking À quoi tu pense?, but we don’t know where the voice is coming from. His first answer is Je pense à toi (I’m thinking of you).
After a while the actress Isabelle Cagnat has a fantastic entrance. One of her legs comes up out of the depths of the bathtub, where she has apparently been hiding all along. After two or three more questions and answers her other leg comes up and finally the rest of her emerges, wearing goggles and a mismatched bikini, and she goes on asking the same question.
Among his many answers: “I think that no caterpillar ever imagined it would someday be a butterfly.” Or: “I think all mushrooms are edible, some only once.” Or: “I think that in the State of Mississippi we would both be in jail right now, after what we have just done.” Or: “I think I have been reproached for writing my love letters on a computer and printing them out. But what did she expect me to do, re-copy the text from the screen?”
At one point she seems to be strangling him and drowning him in the bathtub, but evidently she was only playing, because he comes up alive and goes on answering the question.
Near the end they suddenly realize that they have to get dressed to go out, so they do so very quickly and then they are standing together facing the audience, fully dressed.
“What are you thinking?” “I’m thinking of you and me.”
“And now, right away, without hesitation, what are you thinking?” “I’m thinking of me. And you?”
That is the end of the book, but the stage director Frédéric Cherboeuf has added one more silent bit to finish the play. The man pulls a jewelry box out of his pocket and offers her a wedding ring. She looks horrified, whispers something in his ear and runs off into the darkness.
Of course we couldn’t hear what she whispered, but we know what it must have been: À quoi tu pense?
While I was travelling in the south of France I gradually read the other two-thirds of the book. Two weeks later I returned to Paris and went back to the Lucernaire to see the play again, and this time I understood just about everything. (And I have “liked” Isabelle Cagnat’s fan page on Facebook, so I can be informed of her future projects.)
One of the answers in the book that was not included in the play had to do with the author’s family name, Le Tellier. This is a somewhat unusual name (only the 15,079th most common family name in France, according to the genealogical website Filae), but I knew I had seen it somewhere before, and when I read this answer on page 178 I finally realized where:
“I am thinking I have the same name as the bastard who revoked the Edict of Nantes, and whom people have fortunately forgotten, otherwise it would be like being called Hitler.”
This is a reference to King Louis XIV’s war minister Louvois, whose full name was François Michel Le Tellier, Marquis de Louvois (1641–1691), in other words “Le Tellier” was his family name. I have read a lot about Louvois because he was the immediate superior of Vauban. For decades, all of Vauban’s reports and letters from around the borders of France were addressed to Louvois, who either did or did not pass them on to the King, as he saw fit.
Of course it was Louis XIV himself who actually revoked his grandfather’s tolerant Edict of Nantes, but Louvois was one of the two people who most strongly advised him to do this, the other being the King’s confessor, François de la Chaise (for whom the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris was later named).
Address of the Lucernaire: 53 Rue Notre-Dame des Champs, 75006 Paris.
Métro: Notre-Dame des Champs (line 12) or Vavin (line 4).
Vélib’ bicycle station 6006: 41 Rue Notre-Dame des Champs.
My photos in this post are from 2014. I revised the text in 2018.